May December (2023)
May December (2023)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: December 1st, 2023 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Todd Haynes Actors: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu, Cory Michael Smith

 


 

“I

don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” In Savannah, Georgia, Gracie Nell Atherton (Julianne Moore) and her family prepare for the arrival of movie (and television and commercial) star Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who will be arriving to their home to conduct an interview. Berry plans to portray Gracie in an upcoming independent film, and wishes to take some notes, write down various observations, and study mannerisms and other behaviors to capture the character perfectly. But what is it that makes Gracie a suitable subject for such a project?


“I want you to tell the story right.” In a “very complex and human story,” which became a nation-grabbing sex scandal, Gracie is a controversial woman; the details are unveiled slowly and cautiously, though its basis (or inspiration) on a real woman means that some audiences may be familiar as to the direction the central relationship will follow. Gracie doesn’t seem to carry around any shame or guilt over the considerable age gap between her and her husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) – one that began illegally in the early ’90s when she was 36 and he was 13 (in the 7th grade), which understandably led to an arrest. But that wasn’t the end of it; even with a prison sentence getting in the way, the relationship continued.

Odd moments of loud, interruptive piano music crop up, perhaps to highlight the melodrama of this ripped-from-the-headlines tale – to portray it as the very soap-opera ordeal that it is. As a stark contrast, other sequences are unusually quiet and ordinary; various visits, dinners, outings, and social gatherings are plain to the point of morbid curiosity. The start is something of a routine biopic as Elizabeth conducts interviews and visits key locations from the Atherton affair, though it steadily transforms into something stranger and eerier – thanks to director Todd Haynes. Bizarrely mirroring minor concepts from “Black Swan,” the actress’ attempts to not only emulate but insinuate herself into her subject’s life has potent consequences on her psyche, as well as on the central family. Plus, something is growing and consuming the facade of normalcy in the Atherton household, much like the seemingly invasive caterpillars satiating themselves on the garden plants, which Joe cares for like pets.


As more and more elements of Gracie’s sordid history come to light, paired with Joe’s increasing dissatisfaction with his marriage, it’s evident that time has not healed all the wounds of the tabloid tribulation. Here enters brief commentary on actors’ selection of roles and the interest behind antiheroes – the exceptionally intricate nature of human sexuality and motives, and how notorious figures might be more fascinating than the straightforwardly good or evil. In addition is the sensibility (or lack thereof) of method acting; of trying to fully understand a character and how to get in their head, alongside the nuances of victims and transgressors and the way they’re shaped by media attention.


Problematically, the film unfolds like a psychological thriller, but without a steady stream of psychological intrigue and virtually no thrills. Something striking is always on the verge of happening, yet it rarely does; even the music nearly laughably sets the stage for dramatic revelations that fizzle or remain unrealized. “May December” is clearly a simpler character study – and an artsy picture, brimming with messages just below the surface of obvious visuals – but it struggles to stay absorbing, despite excellent performances by Portman and Moore, who do a fine job of playing an over-invested thespian and a mentally frazzled groomer. Melton is similarly engaging, wracked with a sense of a stolen – or warped – life (and fatherhood) out of his control, for which he’s partially incapable of handling (largely due to his age and his experiences). Manipulation, betrayal, and a long-stewing realization of consequential decisions made take a toll, ramping up (or rather leisurely sauntering) to an ambiguous, irresolute conclusion, suggesting that damaged people just might be thoroughly and futilely unknowable. “Did you crack the case?”

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10